Peter Debbins, a former US Army Special Forces captain was sentenced in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to 15+ years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release for espionage on behalf of the Russian Federation.
Readers will recall Clearance Jobs’ 2020 multi-part series on Debbins which walked through how he was spotted by the Russian military intelligence arm, the GRU, assessed, developed, and ultimately recruited. Court documents associated with the sentencing of Debbins from both the prosecution and defense provide a bit of clarity as to the timelines of events which fall into two categories – the period of time 1996-2011 during which Debbins has admitted having worked for the GRU, which encompasses his entire military career (active and reserve duty) and the years post-January 2011.
Requests for leniency For Debbins
Debbins in his February 2021 letter requesting leniency to Judge Hilton revealed that following his failed polygraph of July 2019, the FBI did not believe him when he told them he did not cooperate with the GRU after 2010. In that same letter, he believes that his same sex attraction was to blame for his mental pathologies. He goes on to say, “The Russian GRU ruined my honor and potential as an American, and now I am being prosecuted by my own country. I ask for our country’s leniency to help end it and restore to me what the Kremlin stole from me, my integrity as an American …”
We also learn from his wife, Yelena Selyutina, that though Debbins and she were married in 1997, she did not emigrate to the United States until after completing her master’s degree in Business Administration from Southern Ural State University in the year 2000, when she arrived at Fort Polk, LA. Thus providing ample reason for Debbins to continually appear on the GRU’s radar during his visits to his spouse in Chelyabinsk.
Prosecution isn’t having it
The court documents show us how Debbins lied on his SF-86. We also learn about the circumstances of his 2005 removal from his post in Azerbaijan and his Top Secret/SCI security clearance suspension; Debbins had relocated his wife to Azerbaijan in direct violation of U.S. Army policy and also provided her with a government issued cell phone.
Interestingly, the prosecution points out how Debbins moved from Minnesota to Virginia in December 2010, first to Virginia Beach then to Manassas in January 2011. In December 2010, Debbins applied for four positions within the Central Intelligence Agency. In January 2011, he applied for 17 positions at the National Security Agency. He was eventually hired by the U.S. Army as a contractor, “in support of a sensitive cyber platform for Army Counterintelligence at the 902nd Military Intelligence Group” where he supported cyber-CI activities. From 2014-2019 he held various positions within the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) with access to highly classified information.
From 2011 through 2019, Debbins continued to apply for positions within the U.S. intelligence community, including following the 2016 election to the White House seeking a position on the National Security Council.
The prosecution, in their submission, requested 17 years of incarceration for Debbins.
The Department of Justice announcement re his sentencing provides input from Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers, “Debbins violated his oath as a U.S. Army officer, betrayed the Special Forces, and endangered our country’s national security by revealing classified information to Russian intelligence officers, providing details of his unit, and identifying Special Forces team members for Russian intelligence to try to recruit them as spies. His conduct is a personal betrayal of colleagues and country, and it reflects the threat of Russian intelligence operations targeting our military. Today’s almost 16-year sentence reflects the seriousness of his conduct. It should also serve as a warning to those who would be tempted to do the same.”
Why periodic reinvestigations are so important
But for the routine reinvestigation process, which required Debbins to return to the United States to take a polygraph examination, which he failed, Debbins and his GRU relationship would have continued to go undetected. In a series of interviews post-failed polygraph, he detailed his cooperation from 1996-2010, attesting that he did not have any contact with the GRU past January 2011. By his own words, the FBI didn’t believe him, and neither does this writer.
Debbins, age 46, will be in his 60’s when he exits the federal prison system. His incarceration begins immediately, and the court has requested he be incarcerated as close to the Washington Metropolitan Area as possible so as to be in proximity to his wife and four daughters.